If you struggle with your weight, the bathroom scale may feel like your worst enemy. And for years, experts supported this notion, claiming that regularly weighing yourself means more burden than benefit—not to mention it's only one number that doesn't take a lot of other variables, such as muscle mass, hydration (read: water weight), and even hormones into account.
Yet a yearlong study published recently in the International Journal of Obesity found that it may be time to start looking at the scale as a friend rather than a foe if you're looking to drop pounds or maintain a healthy weight. Researchers studied how often and consistently the 148 participants, most of them female, weighed themselves, and their resulting weight status. At the start of the study, most of the women weighed themselves 5-6 times per week; that dropped to weigh-ins 4-5 days a week toward the study's end. A quarter of the women didn't establish a daily habit of stepping on the scale. (Get your key fat-fighting hormones in check—and lose up to 40 pounds in the process—with this natural fix.)
Researchers found that the longer the women waited between weigh-ins, the more weight they gained. Women who weighed themselves nearly every day over the course of the year not only lost more weight than those who kept infrequent tabs on their number, but they also maintained their weight loss—something anyone who's ever dropped pounds knows is really tough to do.
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"Weighing yourself every day, or close to it, is a way to hold yourself accountable," says Mia Syn, MS, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Charleston, South Carolina. "It's factual information that may subconsciously influence your eating habits during the day and prompt you to make healthier choices if you notice you're getting off track with your goals."
Of course, there are caveats. If weighing yourself presents some sort of unhealthy trigger—say, you have a history of eating disorders, or seeing your weight prompts feelings of anxiety or depression—step away from the scale, adds Syn. "A better option may be to weigh yourself weekly and look at the long-term trends," she says. "You might also pay closer attention to the fit of your clothes rather than the number on the scale as a gauge of your weight and shape fluctuations."
Angela Onsgard, RD, a dietitian at Miraval Resort & Spa, adds that if your weight-loss plan includes a muscle-building component, it's important to not put too much emphasis on the number you're seeing on the scale. (If you're 50 or approaching 50, you should be adding these strength-building exercises to your routine.) "Increasing muscle will increase the number of calories you burn in a resting state, but it can also increase your overall weight," says Onsgard. Say, for example, you've been watching portion sizes and weight-lifting for an hour three times a week, in addition to attending a spin class twice a week. "There's a good chance that after three months of this routine, you'll step on the scale and see no change," says Onsgard. "Simply looking at your weight doesn't show you that you may have gained 5 pounds of muscle and lost 3% body fat."
If you do decide to weigh yourself daily, keep these tips in mind:
1. Weigh yourself around the same time every day. "It's important to remember that your weight fluctuates hourly based on multiple factors, such as the food you eat, how much you're drinking, your physical activity, and your bowel movements," says Syn. Most experts recommend stepping on the scale first thing in the morning, when you tend to weigh the least.
2. Remember a healthy weight is more than just the number on the scale. Your body mass index (BMI) is a measure of your weight in relation to your height, and experts agree it's a great tool to help you determine if you're at a healthy weight.
3. Know that there are other ways to check in. If you feel that stepping on the scale every day may do more harm than good, choose a different strategy that'll help hold you accountable and keep your spirits up. Maybe you try on a favorite dress and gauge how well it's fitting, or you use a tape measure to check your waist circumference, says Onsgard. "I recommend people measure themselves right below the belly button and at the top of the hip bones. It's a simple, accurate way to assess a reduction in visceral fat, the fat in and around the organs that is most detrimental to health."
This article originally appeared on Prevention.com.